Where We Grid From Here: The smart grid continues to evolve

Published On
Jun 15, 2021

The term “smart grid” was coined 14 years ago. It initially spoke to technology-driven, demand-side power management and consumer-side energy efficiency to handle growing electrical power needs. Two-way power flow between the utility and consumer may become the next bedrock. Assistive technology is now incorporating everything from green energy and energy storage to viable microgrids and distributed energy. This evolution is looking revolutionary as power generation becomes responsive, resilient and flexible. A new level of engagement awaits electrical contractors.

The smart grid’s evolution also aligns with demand for a cleaner grid. Figuring out how to integrate intermittent sources of energy (solar and wind) continues. Adding hydrogen, hydro power and biogas into the carbonless energy mix is being explored, too.

Grid resiliency is now an acute goal in addressing grid stressors that include climate-driven superstorms, wildfires and nefarious intrusions into the power grid. In sum, grid transformation will feature many working parts.

A comprehensive grid

Work on a smarter, reimagined grid has been happening at the federal, state and local levels. The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Grid Modernization Initiative, which began in 2015, is composed of 100 participating national labs and commercial partners working to deliver a grid for the 21st century and beyond. Other DOE efforts are focused on microgrids, solar and energy storage.

“Reimagining the Grid” is Southern California Edison’s (SCE) speculative assessment of how it can meet its customers’ needs into the future through clean bulk and distributed power generation. Based in Rosemead, Calif., the utility’s assessment is meant to invite discussion by laying out possible actions to meet California’s 2045 carbon neutrality goal. SCE projects that goal could equate to a 60% increase in electricity sales from the grid and a 40% increase in peak load (based on population and economic projections).

In the next 25 years, 80 gigawatts (GW) of new, utility-scale clean generation and 30 GW of utility-scale energy storage would be required. An additional 30 GW of generation capacity and 10 GW of storage would likely come from distributed energy resources (DERs), including up to 50% of single-family homes projected to install solar. As is often said, where California goes the nation follows, which makes SCE’s planning especially intriguing to what a reimagined grid could look like.

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The growth in EV goal setting means more grid power delivery and a possible role for distributed energy. Installation of EV charging stations will fall to contractors, often requiring them to bring electricity from a main feed and installing a transformer and distribution panel.
Photo courtesy pf Southern California Edison.

“We recognize the most realistic, effective and efficient way to meet 2045 goals is to electrify many of the uses of energy today (buildings, vehicles, decarbonizing industrial processes, and cleaning generations of power),” said Paul Grigaux, vice president of asset management, strategy and engineering at SCE. “That requires a different grid from what we have today. We have 25 years to address this, an ambitious time frame when you consider the major transformations that will be needed. We are making progress. In the spring and fall, our load can be largely supplied by solar and wind.”

SCE is the largest subsidiary of Edison International and is the primary electricity supplier for much of Southern California.

For Grigaux, building a better grid is more than technology. It’s a matter of leveraging the grid to serve customer behaviors, local supply sources and evolving climate profiles.

“We have built a network, so let’s leverage it to facilitate our vision and recognize every need out there, recognize different climate exposures and use cases for electricity,” Grigaux said. “We need to cater to communities and the grid itself. Part of our territory is heavily rural and exposed to wildfire. How do we make power more resilient? How much transportation has become electrified in one region over another? Are sufficient numbers of charging stations and other infrastructure in place?”

According to 2019 statistics, the California Energy Commission, Sacramento, Calif., reported nearly 567,000 zero-energy vehicles (light duty) in the state. That included full electric, hybrids and some fuel cell vehicles. With California aiming for 75% of all vehicles to be electric by 2049, SCE and other utilities will be challenged to build out charging station infrastructure beyond the home to meet the need. Vehicle battery charging times will then be far more variable, too, adding to load management.

It really takes a village

SCE planners have also stepped up engagement with a community of partners.

“Essential for grid planning and implementation is closer coordination among utilities, regional transmission organizations, technology and service providers, policy agencies (federal, state and local), communities, and customers,” Grigaux said. “Syncing up grid-planning efforts with urban planning by counties, cities and communities will improve coordination of grid deployments. Future market and regulatory constructs will impact and add complexity to grid planning and construction. We want to get this right for less cost.”

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Battery storage will play an increasing role in strengthening the electrical grid.
Photo courtesy of Southern California Edison.

Grigaux added that the changing grid will also require pushing the envelope of traditional geographic and jurisdictional boundaries as standard dividing lines between distribution and transmission resources rapidly evolve. Clean-energy-source siting issues will remain challenging.

The resilient imperative

Top of mind for SCE and California is an agile grid that can be anticipatory when faced with weather events, such as wildfires.

“Our grid was built 135 years ago,” Grigaux said. “The level of automation needed is not where we are, especially at the distribution level. We need more real-time visibility, quality and precision voltage, responsiveness to mitigate changes in power flow for worker safety, advanced switches, latency, fault identification that can be isolated and power automatically restored. Our distribution systems must be networked.”

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A.I. and machine learning are helping increase worker safety for lineworkers at Southern California Edison.
Photo courtesy of Southern California Edison.

A reimagined grid will need flexible planning, Grigaux said. “Achievement can’t simply be executing a plan to a fixed point of time. That is costly, and things can change once you reach that point. Planning needs fluidity, as does execution. It requires realistic approaches that adapt to a range of possibilities and signposts. We call it ‘forward radar.’”

A clearer sense of distributed energy

DERs will play an increasing role in supporting two-way power flow. Electrical engineering researcher Siddharth “Sid” Suryanarayanan co-authored “Achieving the Smart Grid through customer-driven microgrids supported by energy storage.” Suryanarayanan is department head/professor for electrical engineering and computer science at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D. The paper was presented at the 2020 IEEE Conference on Industrial Technology held in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“The whole concept of microgrid has made positive strides,” Suryanarayanan said. “New standards have helped, as have successful pilot projects that show microgrids can work.”

The IEEE Standard 1547 introduced in 2003 first addressed microgrids by establishing a technical standard for interconnecting DER with electrical power systems. Revised in 2018, it now better aids utilities in integrating solar, recognizes smart inverter technology, enhances bulk power system functionality and creates harmonized interconnection requirements.

“I do think we will see more facility microgrids and community microgrids,” Suryanarayanan said. “There are concerns with unintentional islanding. That may be the next discussion. You need to have a good idea of what your load is going to be and confidently forecast it. Work also needs to be done in how to safely set up microgrids. Communications protocols are needed for bi-directional power flow control and better information exchange between service provider and the end-user. It is a delicate balance between supply and demand.”

Grigaux added that distributed generation will need to be more automated and interconnected. Solar and bulk wind are SCE’s biggest use cases.

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SCE is field-testing augmented reality. Using an iPad displaying virtual animation, a lineworker walks through troubleshooting steps to address an equipment issue.
Photo courtesy of Southern California Edison.

Regarding the future of energy storage, the Energy Storage Association, Washington, D.C., projects 100 GW by 2030. Costs are coming down. Suryanarayanan believes in developing an array of battery types.

“That’s why you are seeing R&D at the national labs and by manufacturers. Batteries could be lithium, or sodium sulfur or zinc. Maybe they are used in an internal flywheel configuration,” he said.

Suryanarayanan added that DER must be rooted in good economic theory, so the end-user isn’t impacted by fluctuating prices.

“The answer lies in converging sound economics—market models and providing the end-user timely pricing information to make good decisions,” he said.

Transmitting carbon-free energy is not free, Suryanarayanan said.

“You will need transmission lines delivering clean energy. Building and commissioning such lines is expensive and not easy. The cost of the wind energy, for instance, must be passed onto the end-user. Distributed power to a certain extent can perhaps help balance out the need or number of new transmission lines,” he said.

The development of smart grid technology is ahead of operational development, Suryanarayanan observed.

“We now see technology such as phasor measurement units, internet of things, smart meters and more outpacing grid architecture. Operations is getting its share of attention, however, including standards for directional power flow, voltage control on the distribution side. Microgrid development is coming along, including islanding off the grid and connecting back,” he said.

Suryanarayanan believes more training and controls are needed, including addressing cybersecurity to limit hacks and intrusions that could disable the grid.

“We recognize that grid operators are not all the same,” Grigaux said. “Yet utilities across the country will encounter most, if not all, of the challenges we have in California at some point in time. We believe other utilities currently have the capability, or soon will develop it, to respond to challenges stemming from climate change and the need to clean the power supply.”

More than ever, the grid of tomorrow will need to walk and chew gum in multiple ways. The same could be said of ECs serving the utility market.

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.

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